Friday, May 24, 2019

Melissa Aldana's 'Visions': Transmuting an art icon into jazz

Frida Kahlo has come to stand for more than her tortured life and painfully evolved personal style as a visual artist. The Mexican symbol of individualized feminism in art has lately been taken up by a rising star of the tenor saxophone, the Chilean-born Melissa Aldana.
Melilssa Aldana pays tribute to Frida Kahlo in "Visions."

In "Visions"(Motema) she leads a quartet (expanded to a quintet for all but three of the 11 pieces) to honor Kahlo, whose life and art have generated extensive film, opera, and biographical treatment. A key element of Aldana's approach to this ensemble tribute is that fifth player, vibraphonist Joel Ross, with whom she often plays in unison. (Ross was hailed as the new voice of the vibraphone by Nate Chinen yesterday on NPR's "Morning Edition".) As exemplified by "El Castillo de Velenje," the longest track on "Visions," Ross's tone has a watery shimmer that still avoids blurring his articulation when the tempo is fast. He's clearly motivated in his great solo here by the leader's torrential showcase preceding it.

Aldana plays in an unfettered manner, as if fearful of stasis. Her inventiveness is nonstop, and her sidemen's individuality also gets plenty of elbow room. Yet this doesn't mean that her tone fragments or coarsens. Almost uniquely among tenor saxophonists, she presents the same quality of sound in all registers. Up high, there's an alto-sax persona, with suggestions even of soprano sax at its most ethereal; she is similarly focused when moving into midrange and lower. But her playing maintains continuity of tone, full but not heavy, with no irresolute aspects to her phrasing. Throughout jazz history, we've heard plenty of tenor saxophone, some of it at genius level, designed to exploit a tendency to talk to oneself. Aldana gives us something else.

Rarely does she put forward a breathy quality, an exception being the disc's one standard, "Never Let Me Go," which opens with a solo cadenza. This is an understandable departure from her normally conservatory-perfect sound, probably for the sake of connecting with the tenor ballad tradition stemming from Coleman Hawkins and running through Ben Webster. Sam Harris' piano solo applies fresh harmonies to the piece and gets inventive about phrasing to help justify the song's inclusion in an otherwise all-original program.

 Harris sometimes yields to a tendency to noodle, as on bassist Pable Menares' soft-spoken, somewhat languid "Perdon," but otherwise he shares with the leader a purposefulness that serves the music well. As for the Kahlo inspiration behind the compositions, the listener must infer it from time time and not expect it to be explicit. I heard the music hinting at the painter's highly charged manipulation of personal symbols in "Elsewhere." That tune maintains a restlessness characterized by lots of rhythmic interplay among the group, driven by Tommy Crane's drums. Here Kahlo's struggles seem to have found original expression in another genre.

"Visions" helps to further Aldana's reputation for outstanding creative drive on an instrument that has long tended to be overrepresented in jazz. Her skill as a bandleader and composer should keep her profile high.






Monday, May 20, 2019

Two durable arts organizations cap their current seasons with 'See the Music, Hear the Dance'

The makings of a spectacular (to revive a TV-associated noun from the '50s) could be predicted with the advance publicity of the collaboration last weekend between Dance Kaleidoscope and the Indianapolis Chamber Orchestra (with American Pianists Association in a supporting role).
"Rhapsody in Blue" enchanted the senses together in a DK-ICO collaboration.

The track record of the participants established a reason to believe a spectacular would certainly be delivered. Max Liebman, eat your heart out! And so it was, at least on the evidence of Sunday's final performance of "See the Music, Hear the Dance."

The provocative title alludes to the interplay of the two art forms so well blended in the concert. It's got a psychological corollary in the phenomenon known as synesthesia, which ranges from involuntary and lifelong in some people to a matter of choice, often esthetic, that may find it fruitful to assert beneficial cross-talk between the senses. This aspect of free-floating fantasy linked to the actual world richly pervaded the DK-ICO program.

The sense of touch is crucial to both music and dance. That's a good starting place for synesthesia. The way distinctions of sensory experience break down in dreaming also played a role in "See the Music, Hear the Dance." The classic place in literature is when Bottom awakens from a vivid, literally asinine vision in "A Midsummer Night's Dream." He is astonished that he is no longer under a spell that had given him donkey ears and involved pampering by a fairy queen and her minions.

"The eye of man hath not heard, the ear of man hath not seen, man's hand is not able to taste, his tongue to conceive, nor his heart to report, what my dream was," exclaims Shakespeare's forest-haunted weaver outside the play's fantastic Athens. And the synesthetic response, at its extreme in that case, was quickly suggested more modestly in this program by artistic director David Hochoy's setting of three pieces from Respighi's "Ancient Airs and Dances."

It's a revival of a 2011 set of choreographic responses to three of the Italian composer's evocations of early European dance and song forms as imagined by his countrymen of centuries before. The mood is optimistic and buoyant. The company moves in a continually evolving manner, with thickening and thinning ensemble textures. The gestures are open and confident, affirming an idealized social bond. The gentle smiles evident on the dancers' faces, never forced or locked into place, helped emphasize the relaxed mood. As usual, the lighting of Laura E. Glover and costumes of Cheryl Sparks were perfectly complementary.

The fantasy became more robust — after a mild orchestral interlude, William Grant Still's "Serenade" — in the program's centerpiece, Hochoy's "Rhapsody in Blue" from 2006, revived this time with the ICO under Matthew Kraemer's direction, and with 2017 APA Classical Fellow Drew Petersen taking the solo piano role. Rhapsodic from George Gershwin's first notes — a coy clarinet trill that moves into a sweeping, blues-inflected glissando — the ballet opens with Mariel Greenlee's fleet entrance. The lighting makes her especially sculptural in appearance, her movement seemingly molded and caught in a stop-action illusion even as it continues.

Some hint of Charles Sheeler was in the Rhapsody in Blue costumes.
Hochoy is sensitive to the piece's rapid succession of moods. Gershwin was not at all practiced in musical long forms, and the choreography turns that to advantage. The march-like sassiness that soon comes to the fore brings on dancers realizing the frenetic urban environment. Sparks' costumes rely on contrasts of shading more than color, with patches suggesting what natural light does to urban architecture, making an almost tactile geometry. I was reminded of paintings by the American modernist Charles Sheeler.

As Gershwin's inherent romanticism takes the music over, we see what we're hearing: a rhapsody in flowing blue costuming, with couples in ballroom-dance formations. The composition's big tune — which one commentator has pointed out is as definitive as that clarinet glissando — brings on an enraptured pas de deux for Greenlee and  Timothy June. It's a partnership that seemed unerring in all respects, both in motion and as a still image in the mind's eye.

Mariel Greenlee and Timothy June went the rhapsodic distance with Gershwin.
After that impressed the audience with its imaginative grandeur Sunday afternoon, Gershwin's brief resumption of the lively urban ensemble dancing is surmounted as the tempo broadens by the reappearance of the couple, with a triumphant lift accompanying the final chords.

Petersen's crisp, authentic verve in the solo, firmly coordinated under Kraemer's baton, contributed its own spectacular effect; he obliged the audience ovation with an unaccompanied encore, a well-decorated arrangement of Gershwin's "The Man I Love."


Hochoy's new piece followed intermission. Maurice Ravel's "Mother Goose" suite, a five-part fairytale journey, completed the synesthetic sojourn. The connections  between the tales, with their highly contrasting musical embodiment, were assured by the implied narrative of Paige Robinson as the Storyteller. Her successive stories and their characters arrive hidden behind elegantly borne curtains and emerge to become Beauty and the Beast (Greenlee and June again, fulfilling much different demands this time around), Hop o' My Thumb (or Tom Thumb) with Manuel Valdes portraying a wanderer search for a way forward, and the "Laideronette, Empress of the Pagoda" (Jillian Godwin and Stuart
The breathtaking final scene of "Mother Goose," with the Storyteller at the center.
Coleman). The full-bore enchantment was clad in costumes by Sparks, Barry Doss, and Lydia Tanji, and the lighting was once again fully consonant with Hochoy's playful imagination.

I felt a little bit of the delicious confusion of Shakespeare's Bottom at the end, yet it was a phantasmagoria I wasn't quite sure I was eager to awaken from. The eye of man hath not heard, the ear of man hath not seen such a dream before DK and ICO crafted it for us.

[Production photos by Crowe's Eye Photography]





Tuesday, May 14, 2019

'Indy! The Musical' celebrates the Race and the triumph of true love

The timing of a musical comedy revealingly subtitled "A Hoosier Fantasy" could hardly be better. The month of May here, out of which legends have been made for more than a century, is the focus in the run-up to the Indianapolis 500.  The collaboration by Louis Chenette (music) and Tom Roberts (book and lyrics) opened and closed over the weekend at Phoenix Theatre. A Roberts father-son team created the production, marketed as a benefit for WFYI public radio.

"Indy! The Musical" locks into the annual buzz of the internationally celebrated motorsports extravaganza that's essential to the Indianapolis brand. But more than that, according to Chenette's program note, the show is a metaphor for the importance of home, where events of significance beyond the ordinary make hometowns special.

Ingenuous dance teacher and racy mechanic celebrate their bond in song.
So "Indy! The Musical" comes across as boosterism, carried mainly by the ensembles that end each of the two acts. This positive message is the sturdy thread along which three love affairs are strung. In the time-tested tradition of stage comedy, the course of true love — unlike the racetrack — never did run smooth: Obstacles to each of the couples' happiness crop up, only to be removed at the end with somewhat obvious ease. The people set up to be together turn out to belong together in a way that seems destined.

One couple is hampered by the woman's resistance to her beau's ordinariness. Another is blocked by a conflict between a naive dance teacher's true love (locked in by her one-night-stand pregnancy) and her mechanic lover's footloose and fancy-free habits. The older generation's discovery of love's perpetual appeal brings together a widowed man and woman of high status. (A fourth romance, between a flirtatious 500 Festival Queen and a conceited German driver, figures tangentially in the action, and serves to reinforce the multiple bliss at the end.)

The music and aspects of the dialogue and song lyrics allow for some gentle satire on both romantic and Indianapolis 500 illusions. These help to mitigate the show's tendency to shout an effusive correction to "India-noplace" and "Naptown," pejorative names for the city. (I continue to hold the minority position that the Naptown moniker, historically associated with jazz musicians, has been mainly an affectionate nickname — the way a man is often familiarly known according to where the accents fall in his last name.)

Front and center: "Indy! The Musical" trumpets hometown virtues.
The acting sometimes distorted the balance between poking fun and waving the banner. The major role of Mayor Orville Harroun is written to satirize some politicians' tendency to be windbags, but John Vessels Jr. inhabited the role so broadly that Indianapolis' mayor in the early 1950s becomes a country bumpkin who might have embarrassed even the citizens of TV's Mayberry. His florid, buffoonish performance undercut the message that Indianapolis deserves the world's respect as something more than the home of a one-day racing spectacle.

Joanne Kehoe's direction either encouraged or permitted other overacting. The comic intentions of Roberts' script were perhaps excessively underlined in Sunday's performance. There were some problems in balance as to where the songs fell and how their prominence reinforced the story arc. The second-act duet for Vessels and Miki Mathioudakis as Ida Norris, his partner in golden-age romance, was brightly executed (thanks in part to Mariel Greenlee's choreography) but too long. Their song, "They Say We're Too Old for Romance," left me wondering "who says that?" insofar as the story line doesn't support any general disapproval of senior liaisons. Was there some sort of Indianapolis prejudice 60-odd years ago against old people being struck by Cupid's arrow?

Other songs made their points briefly, but sometimes more compactly than their prominence in developing the story ought to have allowed. "Dan's Song," a second-act showcase for the indecisive mechanic, was a well-proportioned exception. Picking up on ragtime for "Shaking the Sheets," a peppy, slightly ribald women's
Following the left turns: Broadcast team captures race excitement.
number, Chenette's music draws elsewhere on Kurt Weill-esque cabaret style, especially with the staging of the "Pro/Con Chorus," a point-counterpoint representation of contrasting opinions about drivers. "Pole Day" was an intricate presentation of several characters' feelings in succession, with some evidence that Chenette had in mind famous opera ensembles with simultaneous outpourings of individual viewpoints brought together in a unified musical whole. His muse was prolific, with the offstage band, in underscoring mode, even getting in the way of a hyper radio-broadcast team (Adam Crowe and Joe Steiner).

Yet the evident meeting of minds between longtime friends Roberts and Chenette paid off frequently. As they poured their discrete specialties into a unanimous theatrical cause, "Indy! The Musical" made its intended effect, especially given the generally high quality of production values, such as lighting (Laura Glover), projections (Zach Rosing) and technical/sound direction (Michael Moffatt).

The subtitle must be remembered, however; it's just that there may be more fantasy to "Indy! The Musical" than its creators intended.



Saturday, May 11, 2019

ISO concert: Fast-rising piano star Trifonov plays the Schumann concerto; Urbanski advances his Brahms cycle

Daniil Trifonov seems to be joining the history of Russian pianists who quickly attained legendary status. In the
Daniil Trifonov, who actually does know the right way to address the keyboard.
confining days of the Soviet Union, there was an element of Cold War advocacy when the West first became exposed to Sviatoslav Richter, Emil Gilels, Lazar Berman, and Vladimir Feltsman.

Nowadays the two-nation rivalry is less ideologically pitched, but the fascination with Russian pianists carries over whenever a new talent and personality from that motherland seem to stand out. On Friday night, the Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra audience got to hear Trifonov interpret Robert Schumann's Piano Concerto with rapture and a sense of mission.

The stamp Trifonov put on the work — fully in accord with music director Krzysztof Urbanski's management of the orchestra — emphasized the composer's dreamy, pensive side, to which in 1831 he gave an identity as Eusebius, over the more assertive, flamboyant Florestan. Here's a good description about this division within the inner Schumann. A composer's self-description should not always function as a kind of scrim through which you should hear the music, but the polarity dependably functions across the breadth of Schumann's music.

I felt this approach worked, for, after the explosive opening, the piano sets out the agenda with a spell of melodious brooding. The pedal was used generously but not to the point of obscuring the tender passages. Sometimes the more explosive episodes verged on excessive resonance. Still, Trifonov remained in control. His focus on the Eusebius side of Schumann was reinforced by frequent gazes heavenward. More often with him, however, it was head down toward the keyboard, the body language fully conveying the message: "There is nothing in the world more important than what I'm doing now."

The audience, somewhat smaller than I would have thought for mainstream repertoire and the visit of a rising star, was rapt throughout. There were tempo fluctuations that made sense, though they required Urbanski's locking in visually to what Trifonov was up to. Flexibility was the watchword. Some of the orchestral statements were beautifully set in the spirit of the soloist's playing, especially the dynamics and pacing of the violas and cellos in the second movement.

In the finale, Florestan got a turn in the saddle after two movements of Eusebius' gentle dominance. Near the end, the excitement in this performance ratcheted up, but always with a common purpose, as though piano and orchestra were an eloping couple fleeing just a few steps ahead of the bride's astonished parents. Called back for an encore, Trifonov offered Schumann's softspoken effusion Op. 99, No. 1 ("Bunte Blätter").

The concert opened with a co-commissioned work that reacquainted the ISO audience with Kevin Puts, a 47-year-old composer who also wrote the Gala Opening Concert showcase for soprano Renee Fleming in 2017, "Letters from Georgia," inspired by correspondence of the painter Georgia O'Keeffe. The new work is "Silent Night Elegy," a distillation  for concert purposes of the opera "Silent Night," which focuses on the 1914 Christmas Eve truce between enemy troops in the first months of World War I. The staged work has been produced several times; in 2014, Cincinnati Opera presented a couple of memorable performances.

"Silent Night Elegy" has some brutal episodes that bring all orchestral forces into full play. But it also has the touches of whimsy and thoughts of home that must have animated French and Scottish troops on one side, German soldiers on the other, to get together after hearing the other side's celebration across no-man's-land. Fraternization with the enemy being absolutely forbidden, the men's superiors reacted with fury and anger as warfare resumed. That response is also represented in Puts' music. But especially touching was the way fragmentary figures coalesce into a viola melody and horn chorale as the "Elegy" moves toward a hushed conclusion.

After intermission, Urbanski led the orchestra in an alert, sensitively inflected reading of Brahms' Symphony No. 3 in F major, op. 90. Friday's account of the work revealed the plasticity of phrase and accent the music director has drawn from the orchestra in a decade-long tenure whose conclusion was just announced. This genial masterpiece could hardly have had a more insightful, unforced interpretation. Interplay of the ensemble sections was neatly judged, and everyone seemed to be playing as naturally as breathing. It was the sort of performance that is likely to bring more than a few listeners into uneasy anticipation of Urbanski's departure in 2021. It all depends on how successful the ISO is in selecting a successor who preserves aspects of his legacy that can contribute, almost paradoxically, to a freshly conceived realization of the music director's role with a major 21st-century symphony orchestra.







Sunday, May 5, 2019

Wagner, Bruckner, Berg: ISO concert probes the roots of classical music's evolution into the modern world

The Indianapolis Symphony Orchestra this weekend drew back the curtain on the shifts that overcame classical
German composer-conductor Matthias Pintscher
music as it changed irrevocably. The program, fashioned shrewdly upon the foundation of late Romanticism, was certain to excite devotees of the cultural ferment out of which came modernism, yet also presumably to reassure the traditionally minded.

The music of Alban Berg and Anton Bruckner, both indebted to the trailblazing of Richard Wagner, shares features with much of the mainstream out of which symphony concerts draw sustenance today. Saturday's concert comprised all three composers, under the astute guidance of guest conductor Matthias Pintscher.

After this concert in Hilbert Circle Theatre, classical programming for the rest of the season largely re-emphasizes two composers who were in some sense throwbacks: Brahms and Rachmaninoff. Much of what still succeeds with audiences in the 21st century resonates to the heartbeat of the 19th century. Fortunately, harbingers of the world to come, particularly in Wagner and Berg, are embodied in what this weekend's audiences heard, particularly with the essential contributions of guest soloist Michelle DeYoung.

DeYoung is an American mezzo-soprano with roots in Grand Rapids, Michigan, her birthplace, and California. Program biographies, hers included, nowadays tend to be career surveys, and would be more interesting if they seemed to be about people more than resumés. No point in going into other biographical matters here, however. What is most pertinent is the stature of DeYoung's appearance with the ISO Saturday evening.

The highlight was her dramatically vivid, vocally stunning Isolde in Wagner's Prelude and Liebestod from the opera "Tristan and Isolde."  For concert purposes, the composer linked the orchestral introduction to the work's final scene capturing his heroine's farewell to her lover Tristan. In Wagner's carefully intricate plan, of course, the music suggests no parting whatsoever, but rather a transfiguration of the illicit affair into eternal union through death.
Michelle DeYoung sang Berg and Wagner superbly.

DeYoung brought seemingly limitless resources to the task. To impersonate Isolde in the final scene, she had to sum up the significance of the doomed relationship in a manner that goes beyond the limits of all earthly love — just as Wagner intended. Isolde is usually a soprano role, but DeYoung displayed strengths in all registers. Her vocal production and sustaining power sounded without breaks. Something more than thorough training, familiarity with the music, and decades of experience (she's 51) on the concert and opera stage was available in DeYoung's armory. Vital as those were in making her performance special, she also commanded the ability to lift — in secure partnership with Pintscher and the orchestra — an individual voice through Wagner's sometimes tortured poetry into another sphere. Though the word Liebestod (love-death) applies to the final scene for all time, Wagner thought of the Prelude specifically as the yearning for love capable of superseding physical death and of Isolde's final aria as transfiguration, a surmounting of mortality through the spirit.

You can read in the text how Isolde contemplates her dead lover and brings to bear all five senses in expressing the love experience before finally settling on the joy of becoming one with Tristan and the "Welt-Atem," another one of those compound words so beloved of Germans that is  variously translated as "world-soul" or "world-breath." How to communicate that rarefied condition via mere flesh and blood is a singer's ultimate labor in mastering the role. DeYoung showed that mastery in the power and effective distribution of her expressive skills, always with enough to spare that she matched the full force of the orchestra in the aria's climaxes, especially in the lengthiest of its series of questions.

Pintscher set the stage with his control and eloquence in the Prelude, which the peerless Wagner scholar Ernest Newman, alluding to the Prelude's having been written before the opera itself,  described as "a perfectly organized piece of mood-music.... a symphonic epitome... of an unwritten drama." So it unfolded Saturday evening, with the pauses between phrases near the start stated with as much deliberation as the sounded notes. It encapsulated the emotions as well as laying out the building blocks of what DeYoung was about to sing so well.

She also put abundant life into the love poetry that Alban Berg set to music in "Seven Early Songs," which opened the concert. Berg took hints of orchestral color and harmonic ambiguity from Wagner; his later works were to impress his personality with particular Romantic emphasis through his teacher Arnold Schoenberg's twelve-tone system. In this suite of songs, written between 1905 and 1908, he drew upon seven German poets. The moods range from the actively passionate to the relaxed; the orchestration highlights each one. The woven tapestry of clarinets was especially telling in the intimate "In the Room."  The ardor of voice and orchestra alike rose to great heights in the song that followed, "Ode to Love."

Bruckner's Symphony No. 3 in D minor occupied the concert's long second half. My memories are dim about the ISO's last performance of this piece, but I'm confident in saying that this is a much better orchestra than it was in 1990 — more flexible, better balanced, richer in tone, simply more spruce. Pintscher elicited a performance that not only had clarity, but also a way of making that clarity speak more fully. After all, Bruckner, steeped as he was in the organ's architectural resources of color and volume,  is not Richard Strauss — little worry about getting lost in the underbrush.

What has to come out is the meaning of contrasts that are sometimes as abrupt as an organist's ability to alter the sound palette with the flick of a finger. These contrasts were made all the more explicit by Pintscher's having beefed up the brass by one player each (as far as I could tell) over what the score requires. The loud stuff spoke with Stentor's voice. In the finale, Pintscher elicited a way of making the easygoing passages seem otherworldly in comparison. The performance got the most out of the score's quasi-prayerful moments, and thus came close to making explicit the composer's provincial piety. This Bruckner Third will be resounding for me for some time to come, as I hope it will for many in Saturday's audience, along with the glow of the DeYoung/Pintscher partnership.


Saturday, May 4, 2019

Sean Imboden Large Ensemble again provides intriguing music at the Jazz Kitchen

Sean Imboden solos in a ballad feature.
With its shifting personnel resting on a foundation of continuing band members, the Sean Imboden Large Ensemble once again displayed its deep-delving take on contemporary new music for big band at the Jazz Kitchen Friday night. The performance by this minimally rehearsable band came close to realizing all of the leader's considerable demands. If the opportunity ever arose for the ensemble to get settled within these tricky scores, its reputation would spread far and wide.

Heard in the first of two sets, the 17-piece band once again used the leader's arrangement of Joe Henderson's "Inner Urge" as a kind of firm collective punctuation at the end. This time the dueling sax solos— one short phrase following the next in compatible dialogue — were capably delivered by LaMont Webb and Matt Pivec. John Raymond took his second scintillating trumpet solo of the set here,  helping no doubt to build eager anticipation of the set to follow.

After a tense delay while microphone problems were addressed, the band opened the show with an Imboden original, "Hopscotch." which had the jumps between intervals in the theme that the piece's title suggests. Joel Tucker took the first of the set's several assertive guitar solos. He was also key to the coherence of the rhythm section in accompaniment.

As an arranger, Imboden seems to favor chorale-like harmonies as a setting for ballads. In addition, he made "I'll Be Seeing You" a showcase vehicle for one of his rare turns as a tenor-sax soloist. For some reason, the arrangement seemed to fall apart near the end. The quiet ending Imboden  arranged for "Stella by Starlight," which followed, was much more ably handled. That piece featured a winsome alto sax solo by Amanda Gardier.

Imboden's "Horizon" pushed forward a leaping saxophone-section line, typical of the independence the composer gives to the different instrumental choirs. Later, there was  nice ensemble support emerging behind the trombone solo that followed a wry exhibition by trumpeter Kent Hickey. Brian Yarde's drumming made certain the energy supporting the solos never flagged.

An untitled blues, fetching though it was on the surface, acquired depth in solos offered by trombonist Andrew Danforth, with its exciting variation in note values between sustained and jittery, and pianist Chris Pitts, who unfortunately for much of the set could barely be heard. The Imboden ballad "Samadhi,"with its evocation of meditative states, hit some alpha-wave ecstasy in Raymond's florid trumpet solo, capping a showcase for a sophisticated section-to-section blend. It was sufficient to pave the way for that signature romp through "Inner Urge."

[Photo by Mark Sheldon]









Friday, May 3, 2019

'Newsies' displays pizazz and collective focus of Civic Theatre at the Tarkington

Pumping fists and coordinated jumps are a powerful presence throughout "Newsies."
"Les Miserables" helped make it safe for a hit musical to blare forth a message of agitation by have-nots against society's haves. "Billy Elliot" was a successor in a more up-to-date setting. But before that saga of English coal miners' struggle in the context of a lad's dance dreams came "Newsies," also a show that started life as a movie and later proved to have stage legs.

The real-life origin of the 1992 film (adapted for theatrical presentation in 2011) was the 1899 labor struggle of a niche underclass of newspaper boys hawking the product on the streets of New York. Booth Tarkington Civic Theatre's production is now in its second weekend at its home theater, the Tarkington at Carmel's Center for the Performing Arts, and makes the search for betterment through collective action a cause only a nasty person could oppose.

Putting a premium on sheer entertainment is the key. The show presents a head-spinning parade of production numbers, continually showcasing virtually all-male dancing and singing. The newsies of the title are never far from center stage. Threaded through a story that necessarily puts any focus on individuals in second place is the improbable romance between the newsies' leader, Jack Kelly, and a female reporter, Katherine, who disguises her identity as a ruthless publisher's daughter working for another newspaper under an assumed byline.

Novice labor leader Jack confronts powerful publisher Pulitzer.
Jack's dream of escape takes the form of a sung declaration of  how much better life would be in Santa Fe. His song carrying the city's name is prominent at the beginning and end of Act 1. Like everything he invested in the role, Jake Letts made the most of the song on Thursday night. His well-knit, lyrical tenor, which was also capable of conveying as much passion as his speaking voice, lifted up some more routine numbers, "I Never Planned on You" and his second-act duet with Katherine, "Something to Believe In." The big solo for the other half of the show's love interest is "Watch What Happens," in which Ani Arzumanian, as Katherine, put across both the doubts and the determination of a young woman reporter feeling her way into the world of real news in an era when it was difficult for female newspaper journalists to get off the "society" desk.

These two leading roles were charmingly filled, and there were nice contributions by other actors that helped to modify the impression that "Newsies" was overreliant on ensemble song and dance. As burlesque impresario Medda, Tiffany Gilliam represented how thoroughly money culture reaches the lower levels of striving in the big city, singing the sarcastic "That's Rich." At the top of the pyramid is Joseph Pulitzer, publisher of The World, vying with William Randolph Hearst to exploit the boom in readership provided by the Spanish-American War.  The show's creators — Alan Menken and Jack Feldman (songs) and Harvey Fierstein (book) — have made him a stock villain, and the only choice is to play him to the hilt, as Steve Kruze does in delivering "The Bottom Line."

Suzanne Fleenor directs the show, drawing from the large cast a commitment to vivid storytelling that never wanders off into subtlety. And with choreography by Anne Beck, "Newsies" consistently brings forward the energy of sympathetic lowlifes (all of them speaking fluent N'Yawk here)  objecting to their lowly lot. We are taking in a show that's unmistakably a fantasy anchored in reality.  The production's upbeat vigor and the athleticism of its dancing arouses the mischievous thought that never have the downtrodden been so difficult to tread down. That makes their successful rising up all the more an outcome they richly deserve.

This amounts to the obvious way to treat social history in a musical, and the production team is on board with putting it across. Lighting, sets, and costumes hint at urban grittiness, but the violence and the plot's depressing turns clearly function to make the eventual triumph register more indelibly on our pulses. "Newsies"' winged victory-in-the-making comes through loud and clear  in "Carrying the Banner," "The World Will Know," and "King of New York." Such rousing songs, under Brent E. Marty's effective musical direction, make us want to shout "We're with you!" to the show's heroes.

Something else that registers and makes "Newsies" relevant in 2019 is the expansion of the boys' passion for self-improvement into other social needs. "Intersectionality" is all the rage in the left-of-center activist community today. Though I found the show lots of fun but pretty superficial, "Newsies" anticipates the current  tension in social movements between looking out for yourself and people like you on the one hand and, on the other, seeing how your group's suffering is mirrored in the lot of other oppressed people, and might be addressed in concert with them.

The newsies come with strenuous resolve to this realization —  a recognition that's a significant part of the show's uplift. They notch a place in urban history by risking outreach, connecting with other exploited children. Thus, one of the reasons to see Civic's "Newsies" may well be to contemplate how much any collective struggle has to develop an #UsToo component in order to succeed. But if you only go for the heart-warming spectacle, that's enough, too.

[Photos by Zach Rosing]